In the world around us, there are some things that people take for granted that they should not. In order to truly achieve an accurate picture of one’s reality, they must remain doubtful of it and weigh it against empirical philosophies in order to validate every aspect of it. Rene Descartes was the originator of Cartesian doubt, a method of skepticism that allows one to cast into doubt the validity of what one believes. According to Descartes, one needs to never take anything for granted; no matter what one believes, one must never take it as gospel, and remain skeptical of it. Through this unique philosophy of Cartesian doubt, Descartes was able to take the image of the world that exists around us and deconstruct it until its basest truths were unearthed. From there, a new world could be reconstructed around it, forming a better and closer set of truths one can rely on.
Descartes proposed a systematic and methodological system which became Cartesian doubt; in it, doubt is used to find absolute truth from what can actually be doubted. When applying Cartesian doubt to a picture of the world, one must doubt everything and scrutinize it; whatever ends up standing out among the rest and holding up under that scrutiny is then held to be true. What remains after that scrutiny is known as basic, or foundational, beliefs, from which one can expand their knowledge into further truths. It is a way to strengthen one’s knowledge base by making sure that what one holds to be true is actually true.
There are four steps to the method of Cartesian doubt. First, one must accept just the information that is definitely true. Next, from those truths, smaller units of truth must be found by breaking down what is known. After that, whatever problems arise must be solved, from simplest to most complicated. Finally, whatever problems remain, or what new problems arise, must be listed completely for future reference. Cartesian doubt is often called hyperbolic doubt, as it encourages an extreme form of doubt that is comprehensive and intense. It is so intense for a reason; it must cover absolutely every possibility of falsehood an idea or truth contains, so that real truths can be found. The overall idea is to abolish all previous preconceived notions in order to arrive at perfect truths and only perfect truths.
After a conclusion is found regarding the true nature of the world around him, Descartes can view the mind and body as two separate entities; the body is extended, while the mind is thinking. As a result, the opposition of these two ideas by which these aspects of the self operate present themselves as separate, discrete units that are capable of their own level of understanding, and can be understood independently of the other. The mind-body problem comes from the way in which these two distinct forces interact; the body informs the mind and vice versa. The reality of the unified self (mind and body working together) can be thrown into doubt, due to the strange way in which each individual half works; however, what then explains how they work together? According to Descartes, God has the capability and the power to make two different components work together to form a seamless whole, and so it is entirely possible that the human being is that whole.
The crux of his thoughts regarding Cartesian hyperbolic doubt are clear in the opening lines of Meditation I: “Several years have now elapsed since I first became aware that I had accepted, even from my youth, many false opinions for true, and that consequently what I afterward based on such principles was highly doubtful; and from that time I was convinced of the necessity of undertaking once in my life to rid myself of all the opinions I had adopted, and of commencing anew the work of building from the foundation” (Descartes, 1641).
In Meditations, Descartes examines his own personal beliefs in the form of the Meditator, who discusses how many things had has learned in his life that turned out to be untrue. This led him to begin to question even more about what he thought he knew, inspiring him to cast off every worry he has in order to facilitate this objective line of reasoning. He seeks stronger foundations for knowledge, leading him to chip away at his own preconceived notions to test them and search for falsehoods.
Part of Cartesian doubt involves rejecting or doubting the world around you, or even putting the very nature of reality into question. Descartes posited that the sensory information experienced by the self could lie to you, to the point where you might be hallucinating whatever you saw. This throws absolutely everything about the world around us into doubt. The only way something can be proven as true is if there is absolutely no way to disprove its validity. As long as that possibility exists, it is not true. The dream and the demon are two Cartesian ideas that place this doubt of the nature of reality into focus.
In the case of the dream argument, Descartes argues that since our dreams are so realistic so as to be perceived as reality while we are in them, it is entirely possible at any given moment that we are in a dream – not experiencing reality. Since it is nearly impossible to tell, it is up to us to determine for ourselves whether or not we are awake. We can never truly tell for sure, though; there is equal evidence to suggest that we are awake as we are dreaming.
Elsewhere, there is the idea of the evil demon, whom Descartes believes possibly controls our experience, and what we gain from it. The world around us may or may not be an artificial world, a façade that the demon creates in order for us to inhabit. This, of course, depends on our level of madness; were we to go insane just for a moment, that madness would allows us to doubt even what we otherwise knew to be true. That judgment could be thrown into doubt by the presence of the aforementioned demon.
In light of the possibility of the demon throwing up an artificial world in front of us to mask us from the truth, discovering the real truth can be more difficult. As every single fiber of this demon’s being is to deceive and mislead you in thinking that this is the real world, he focuses on providing a complete world that is totally lifelike to deceive you, complete with facsimiles of real people that you can believe are there and exist. The evil demon even presence Descartes the illusion that he has a body, and bodily functions come out of it – in actuality, there is no body. The omnipotence of the evil demon makes it entirely possible for him to bend reality to his will, in a way that makes one still completely believe that it is real.
Descartes’ biggest truth that he holds to in his writing is the signature phrase, “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes had attempted to doubt his own existence through his own facets of Cartesian doubt; however, the doubting itself was evidence enough of existence, since the opposite could not be doubted. Therefore, the very existence of doubt means that the doubter is, indeed, truly existing. No matter what other things are present in the world to doubt, and regardless of the level of sensory doubt that can be placed upon the experiences around us, we know that we exist because we have the ability to have that doubt in the first place. This extends to any mental activity (“thinking”), the hallmark of a true being. This ultimately forms the basis for Descartes’ reality and the reality of the world, and is the foundation for which we seek out truths that extend outside us.
When it comes to forming a picture of the world, Descartes’ methods are relatively effective, though they lack falsifiability. Descartes would start by tearing down absolutely everything he knew about the world, every single thing he could place into doubt. Preconceptions, sensory information, and more would be cast aside as dubious and falsifiable. He would do this until all that was left was that which he absolutely knew to be true – for example, that he exists. From there, he would use his steps to break down that truth and other truths into their component parts, using them to discover other truths, until the world around him was reconstructed in a way that was composed entirely of real truths. This way, he could live in a world free of doubt and uncertainty, as he knew exactly what was true and why. This Cartesian method of deconstruction and reconstruction allows him to tear apart preconceived notions and arrive at a whole new reality that is much closer to truth.
Descartes, Rene, 1641. Meditation I.